Untangling my brain into simple strips (or, what improved my quality of life lately)

January 15, 2022

I'm not a happiness peddling thought leader with a course to sell, but my quality of life has improved lately. And I don't mind talking about it publicly, because if it worked for me, it might work for someone else.

I'm a programmer by day. Well, more like 12 days. I started working for an honest-to-goodness business last week. Me being the inexperienced one, had to learn their programming tools, specifically a language called Clojure. It's a niche language with a strong following. Like other niche things with strong followings, the community of people using that thing have their own cult-like lingo.

I was merely Clojure-adjacent before my current job, and I clearly remembered this bizarre word that the community used. It was delightfully pretentious—complect. I never knew what it meant but it stuck with me for years. When I had looked it up back then, I remember seeing online that I had to watch an hour of this nerd talking about engineering philosophy. So I never got around to knowing what it meant.

But now I'm surrounded by Clojure experts. I asked one of my colleagues what complecting means. He patiently explained it to me with an analogy. It would be harder to do heart surgery if, say, the veins are all tangled into a mess. That's what a complected state is. It's harder to understand and fix things that are braided together. I liked the ideas he brought up. When the weekend arrived, I finally sat down and saw that nerd talking about engineering philosophy for an hour.

He showed this diagram:
image.png

Complecting means braiding. It's harder to understand complex systems if their components are braided together. The same four strips intertwine, but give rise to complex patterns that are hard to wrap your head around. Don't do it!

I also realized another effect of complecting. If I pull any strip, it's going to pull and deform all the other strips with it.

Wait. That's why I feel better these days.

I don't usually care to chase happiness, because I don't know what that means. But I did notice that my quality of life has improved, even in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. Turns out, I have decomplected a few things fairly well (but not perfectly)—things that happen to me, how I think about it, and things that I feel.

The mechanism of feeling like garbage roughly goes like this:

Bad thing happens → You think about the bad thing → Bad feelings arise → You think more about the bad thing → More bad feelings arise → ...cycle repeats

The mind becomes a tangled mess. Thoughts sway feelings sway thoughts. They are two separate things, but complected.

I cannot avoid bad things from happening, and I cannot avoid my feelings about it. But it's possible to separate the two, like two braids hanging loose and make sense of it all. When that happens it's possible to let go of the thoughts, and then let go of the feelings and return to a state of well-being.

In order to do that, you have to be able to truly understand the nature of your mind and how thoughts and feelings arise. You need a kind of strong, sensitive meta-awareness to catch yourself complecting. This is the hard part. But there is one practice that I used to be highly skeptical of which greatly helped my ability to decomplect my mind.

Meditation

I used to think meditation was hogwash preached by shady mystics. It's also propagated by peddlers of sketchy science that show off about its supposed health benefits. No different than the açai berry fad that preceded it.

Turns out I was partially correct. Meditation has been the domain of some shady mystics. Scientific studies on meditation show plenty of promise, but I'd not rely on the consensus staying that way. You see, the real benefit of meditation has been complected with those things.

At its core, most practices of meditation are about having a hyper-clear understanding of your mind. Even if we later learn that meditation does not help with improving attention spans or preventing dementia, you cannot take away the fact that it helps you look inward, and decomplect thoughts, feelings, and the nature of consciousness itself.

I recognised that there is a consciousness that is always present, still as an untouched puddle, and separate from your thoughts and feelings. When I started my practice months ago, I had not realised how braided together my consciousness was with everything else.

Even a little bit of meditation (past the initial learning curve) brought me a huge gain in the ability to let go of what arises, and process them better and more strongly. I even started noticing when my monkey-brain kicked in with an urge, desire or feeling in response to something. Recognising it as soon as it happens is key to being better at dealing with it.

You may have noticed—it's hard to talk about meditation without sounding like a mystical crank high on their own odour. Maybe it didn't help that I introduced it using a pretentious buzzword proudly thrown around by long-haired, bespectacled nerds. The only way it can truly make sense, unfortunately, is through experience. Talking about the value in meditation often means running up against the limits of vocabulary.

If you are curious about trying out meditation, the most accessible way is through apps that do guided meditations. In general, I'd recommend finding an app that has a clear understanding of what's truly important about meditation. Many apps seem to promote it with a far more shallow purpose of improving your sleep or making you calm, which is not the main goal of meditation.

A more specific recommendation I'd make is Waking Up. I've been using this app for a year, and it's a really great guide, and draws from many perspectives around what is essentially the same practice. It costs as much as a Netflix subscription, but the value it gives me is a lot more.

I'll conclude by saying pomelos are inedible. Eat papayas or something instead. Bye Bye.